|Matty Ice has run the Falcons offense with ruthless proficiency|
Atlanta offense vs New England defense
Unless you've been living under a rock over the past two weeks, you already know that the Falcons offense is really, really good. They rank amongst the top five in the league in nearly every statistical category: points (1st, 33.8 per game), yards (6,653, 2nd), turnovers (11 all season, lowest in the league), yards per rush (4.6, 5th), net yards per pass attempt (8.2, 1st) and first downs (379, 2nd). Perhaps the most insane stat to highlight their ruthless offensive efficiency is this: they finished third in the league in passing yards (4,725) despite throwing the ball only 33.6 times a game. Only six teams threw the ball less frequently than these Falcons, all of whom either had quarterback problems (Rams, Niners, Dolphins) or a dominant ground game to rely on (Titans, Cowboys, Bills).
Unlike most of those teams, Atlanta had the luxury of both a strong rushing game and great passing personnel, enabling offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to keep his play calling balanced and his opponents flummoxed throughout each game. Atlanta had about a 44/56 run/pass disparity and were consistently productive on the ground, thanks to both a dynamic backfield duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman and improved play from the offensive line. Again pointing to their efficiency, Atlanta ranked fifth in rushing yards per game (120.5) despite ranking only 12th in attempts per game (26.3). Only the Bills, Browns (?!?) and Cowboys topped their team average of 4.6 yards per carry.
While Freeman and Coleman are different styles of runner, both proved to be great fits for Atlanta's zone blocking scheme. In that scheme, the offensive line generally all fire out of their stance in the direction of the play (left or right), coached to either seal their man from the sideline or drive him in that direction. The running back is coached to follow the blocking while waiting for a lane to open, in which case he can cut back against the flow of the defense and explode through the hole. It's a scheme that has a long track record of NFL success, most notably with the 90s Broncos teams that were coached by Shanahan's father Mike. It's also a scheme that has occasionally given the normally stout Patriots run defense problems, most memorably during the 2014 divisional round against Baltimore (Justin Forsett ran for 129 yards that game on only 24 carries).
That zone scheme only heightens the already hefty responsibilities on the broad shoulders of Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine. Those three make up the Patriots interior defensive tackle rotation, and their ability to hold their gaps against the Falcons fifth ranked rushing offense will be critical. With the Patriots likely to play nickel personnel almost exclusively to counter the Falcons array of passing game weapons, the Falcons backs will be facing a very light box if they can escape past the line of scrimmage. Not only do the Pats have to hold their own inside, but their deep rotation of edge defenders (Jabaal Sheard, Trey Flowers, Rob Ninkovich, Chris Long) will have to set a hard edge, essentially cutting off the flow of the zone blocking and forcing the back to cut back regardless of whether a hole is there or not.
|Freeman is a dynamic runner in the open field|
The presence of fullback Patrick DiMarco is also worth mentioning. DiMarco was PFF's highest graded run blocker amongst fullbacks in 2016, narrowly edging out his Super Bowl counterpart James Develin. However, unlike many fullbacks, DiMarco's presence in the backfield isn't necessarily a tell that a run is coming. Atlanta's balance and subsequent high usage of play action means that DiMarco was on the field for nearly as many passing plays (155) as running (212, without a single carry). DiMarco is also a capable receiving option who will make the defense pay for ignoring him in coverage.
That offensive balance will continue to come up as we shift our attention towards the Falcons passing game. Much of the Falcons passing game success came from their ability to run the ball effectively. Not only were they able to use play action to their advantage, but they also had great success using traditional run personnel (fullback in the backfield, two tight ends, etc) to create favorable looks to throw against. Much like the Patriots, they constantly keep opposing defenses off balance because they pose a legitimate threat to run or pass well out of nearly any formation or personnel grouping.
Like DiMarco, the Falcons tight ends play a big role in forming that offensive multiplicity that makes them so hard to match up with. Over the first seven games, veteran Jacob Tamme averaged 46.7 snaps per game as the top option at the position, with Levine Toilolo averaging a healthy 34.8 snaps per game as the second tight end. Tamme suffered a season ending shoulder injury in Week 8 but that didn't alter the Falcons devotion to multiple tight end personnel. Instead, they went to it even more, with third round rookie Austin Hooper emerging as the top option at the position. Hooper averaged 42.3 snaps per game in nine healthy games since Tamme landed on IR (he missed the final two regular season games with an injury), while Toilolo also saw his workload increase up to 39.7 snaps from Week 8 on. While both tight ends will be on the field together plenty, Toilolo's size (6'8", 265) makes him the preferred blocking option in single tight end sets, while Hooper's athleticism makes him a more dangerous threat as a pass catching option.
Again, the multiplicity the Falcons have on offense will likely force the Patriots to stay in nickel personnel for the vast majority of the game. The Pats will trust their ability to stop the run from the nickel, something they've done well all year, far more than their ability to cover Atlanta's diverse group of weapons with base personnel. Expect the defense to vary back and forth between a big nickel (three safeties, with Patrick Chung typically in box) and a traditional three corner nickel based on how many receivers Atlanta puts on the field. We could even see a decent amount of dime defense, with three safeties and three corners, depending on game flow and whether the Patriots can stymie Atlanta's ground game early.
|Jones is simply too big, fast and strong for most defenders to bring down|
So, how do you stop Julio? More than likely, a player of this caliber will get his catches and yards regardless of what you do, but the key is to make everything difficult for him. While the Falcons create a lot of problems for defenses by moving Julio all over the formation, the Patriots are better equipped to cope with this than most, as all three of their top corners are capable of playing the slot.
I expect the Patriots to mix up their coverages quite a bit to keep Matt Ryan guessing, but I'd expect more man coverage than zone. Simply put, zone is a dangerous proposition against a Falcons offense that consistently schemes it's way into advantages against it. Like the Patriots, the Falcons do a good job of using motion to identify coverages before the snap. They also react with a Patriots-esque ruthlessness, often splitting out lesser receiving options such as DiMarco or Toilolo to occupy opposing corners while victimizing slower inside zone defenders with a combination of their talented receivers and well designed zone beating concepts.
With that in mind, when the Patriots play man coverage, I'd expect a combination of Eric Rowe and Malcolm Butler to take primary responsibility on Jones. When Rowe is on the field, it will likely be him, as he possesses the best combination of size, length and speed to cope with Julio's well rounded game. When the Patriots have only two corners on the field, look for Butler to play underneath coverage on Julio. He'll be able to do so because the Patriots will likely shade a safety over the top of Jones regardless of where he lines up or who's covering him. Whoever is covering Jones will have their hands full with the assignment of tackling him, as he's an absolute nightmare once he gets a full head of steam going (ask the Packers). Get low and look out for his stiff arm, which is Corey Dillon-esque.
When the Falcons go three wide, I'd expect Butler to largely take the smaller, shiftier Taylor Gabriel. At 5'8" and 175 pounds, Gabriel is undersized but incredibly explosive, as indicated by reports that he ran a 4.28 40 time as a draft prospect back in 2014. Gabriel went undrafted that year and latched onto the Browns, who cut him this summer despite flashes of potential over his first two seasons. He's rewarded the Falcons for picking him up with big play after big play. Since his promotion to third receiver in Week 8, he's turned his modest role into 56.7 yards per game, with 7 touchdowns in those 10 games. With Butler being by far the best athlete of the Patriots coverage options, it will be on him to prevent Gabriel from making a big play. Butler will likely be doing so without a lot of help, as most of the help available will likely go to whoever has Julio Jones.
|Sanu has been productive from the slot this year|
End arounds to Gabriel and Sanu are another wrinkle to note for the Patriots defense to keep in mind. Gabriel rushed four times this season for 51 yards and a touchdown. Sanu only had one rushing attempt for five yards this season, but racked up 17 attempts for 122 yards and two touchdowns over his final two seasons in Cincinnati. Such plays are especially hard to defend not only because of those players open field running ability, but also because they look exactly like the pre-snap motion that Atlanta uses heavily. The Patriots must also beware of the throwing ability of Sanu, a former high school quarterback. Sanu hasn't thrown a pass as a Falcon, but completed 5 of 5 attempts for 177 yards and two touchdowns throughout his Bengals career.
After all that, we still haven't gotten to what might be the most problematic matchup for the Patriots defense: Freeman and Coleman as pass catchers out of the backfield. Both finished amongst the top 10 highest graded receiving backs by PFF in 2016, with Coleman tying Patriot James White for third and Freeman finishing at eighth. While neither was used enough as pass catchers to put up eye-popping numbers, both proved to be deadly when compromised defenses were forced to match them up with a linebacker. Freeman's shiftiness showed up in his route running, as he was regularly able to shake man coverage, while the Falcons would use Coleman's pure speed by having him attack mismatched linebackers vertically, rather than with the short, check-down type routes associated with them. I actually wrote about the Falcons' usage of their backs in the passing game earlier this year, using them as a template as how the Pats might attack Denver's defense.
I proposed using safety/de facto linebacker Patrick Chung to cover the similarly skilled Le'Veon Bell in advance of the AFC Championship game. Bell got hurt too early to tell if the Patriots were going to use that wrinkle. My argument for that unconventional strategy was that rolling the dice with a Patriots linebacker against solid but unspectacular tight end Jesse James was better than keeping said linebacker mismatched against Bell all game. That strategy will be tougher to get away with this time due to the seam stretching speed of Hooper, who is an above average athlete at tight end. When Hooper is on the field, his speed will likely demand the attention of Chung.
As a result, the Patriots will likely have to take their chances with linebackers on the running backs. They'll also have to be hyper aware of where that mismatch is at all times, as it's one that could require safety help. The Falcons aggressive use of Coleman's speed is particular something to look out for, as safety help over the top might be necessary to prevent a big play if the Pats are trying to cover him with, say, Kyle Van Noy or Dont'a Hightower.
Another quandry for the Patriots defense is how much effort should be put into pressuring likely league MVP Matt Ryan. Ryan has had an incredible season, but like any quarterback, can be forced into mistakes when under duress. That alone seems like a solid argument for added resources towards pressure, as both Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia noted this week how "comfortable" Ryan has looked this season. This offense will be tough to stop if Ryan is allowed to remain comfortable.
However, there are convincing arguments for keeping with the conservative approach to the pass rush that has gotten the Patriots here. Much like Brady, Ryan excels at negating the pass rush by getting rid of the ball quickly. Blitzing against him is usually futile, as he'll calmly take a checkdown for positive yards. Ryan's pocket presence also helps him cope with pressure better than most, although he will have to occasional brain fart mistake when under heavy duress. Rushing three, as the Patriots have done often this season, lessens the likelihood of pressure but also leaves the Patriots an extra defender to drop back into coverage, which could be a necessity against this offense.
|Mack has solidified the middle of the line, but will play hobbled on Sunday|
This makes the right side of the interior a weakness to attack scheme-wise when the Patriots attempt to pressure Ryan. I'd be very surprised if they stray from their tried-and-true strategy of rushing three or four at the most. However, expect Matt Patricia to get creative with how he designs those pressure schemes. The Patriots could attack the interior in a number of different ways. They could use inside, looping stunts as a way to create speed mismatches against the 34 year old Chester or the hobbled Mack. They can try to attack the middle by sending a linebacker, as Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy both excel when called upon to pass rush. Doing that would often be coincided with dropping an unexpected defensive lineman into an underneath zone, preventing the defense from a numbers disadvantage in coverage while presenting an unexpected wrinkle for Ryan to process on the fly. They should certainly try to scheme ways to isolate Flowers, their best interior rusher, against Chester, who was a liability in pass protection this year.
Regardless of what they do scheme-wise, don't expect the Patriots to shut this Falcons offense down. Atlanta's offense is Patriots-esque in it's multiplicity, allowing Kyle Shanahan to always have a practical counter to what the defense offers. Combine that with great personnel, highlighted by Ryan, Jones and Freeman, and you have the makings of an historically good offense. That ability to keep opponents off-balance should create a great chess match against Belichick and Patricia, who have augmented their reputations as great defensive coaches with a great 2016 season. Despite Belichick's presence on the opposing sidelines, Atlanta is too good on this side of the ball to not make their share of plays. If the Patriots defense can come across with a few big plays of their own, they'll greatly improve their odds of winning the war, especially given who they have on the other side of the ball.